I've always known that music can never really be a solitary act, even when played for yourself by yourself. I have always had to envision that mouse in the corner, listening. I have always needed someone to play for.
A ham is born.
This article has been challenging for me. I think it's because I have been a soloist for most of my career. Every time I play with other musicians, I have to learn the same lessons all over: I have to look at the integrity of tempo again, of intonation, (especially vocal), the overplaying and over-voicing, and I have to concentrate and be vigilant about appropriateness and efficiency. I am talking about listening.
There is nothing like the sound of two guitars: it can be as rich and colorful as a symphony orchestra. Or, if in the hands of two people ham-boning their way through "Show Me The Way To Go Home," it can sound like an explosion in a spaghetti factory.
Solo guitarist-singers often overdo it, when it comes to their arrangements. The tendency for a solo, is to try to be the one-man band so you're often busy intimidating a bass part, rhythm part and fills, even percussion. Traditional playing styles, like Travis picking, have been developed and embellished over the years, to accomplish this. It is a balancing act, and if not done carefully, the result is often an arrangement that is ill-conceived and too busy. It's tempting to play those notes that are laying under your fingers, just because they're there. Arrangements can be based on convenience rather than inspiration, and the problems multiply when you add other musicians to the equation. It's difficult if you haven't learned to be an objective listener, not to mention a tactful leader.
Learning to listen may start out as a left-brained activity. But in the end it's the music fairy who makes it happen. There have been times when, after having played solo for many months and it's time again to put the band back together, that, hard as I try, I'm unable to be part of the sound—I'm still trying to be all of it. Then suddenly it happens, seemingly on its own. I can play my stuff and hear yours too! I'm locked in. So, now what? I begin to see both of our places in the music, my contribution possibility, and I believe, so does everyone else, at the same moment! Maybe it's a cool little rhythm thing on the guitar, or maybe it's just laying out for the moment knowing it's my potential that's important, not the sound yet. Knowing what not and when not to play is a great contribution to any ensemble.
There are real differences between what happens in solo vs. ensemble playing. What is a simple idea for one player becomes an exercise in confusion for two or more. And there are different opportunities and pitfalls.
Soloists can be much more spontaneous in terms of dynamics, tempo and overall delivery; more flexible—you can change the show in the middle of the show, even in the middle of the song if you want, change the key, etc., all depending on your whim or your best guess at what they really want to hear. There is a much greater potential for intimacy with the audience, and that one-to-one feel is unbeatable. I find you get more credit, (maybe even more than you deserve), when you're "all alone up there." There is a downside of course: there is no one to blame when you lay an egg, no one to talk to onstage. Also, I think you can get very stale as a solo. Maybe it's just easier to become complacent about your show, new material, etc.
Performing in duo or larger ensembles has its own perks and pitfalls. You certainly have more power and a larger dynamic range; you also have a more varied palette with regards to texture and color. Most importantly though, you have that impossible to describe thing that happens when people play music together. On the downside, you might find that you sound like just about every other band out there, if you don't try for some originality. It can be easy to confuse power and color with brilliance.
As a group member you can find yourself playing not necessarily what you want, but rather what is required to be congruent with what the others are doing. And there are differences to deal with. For example, when you think your drummer is playing it too slow, do you tell him or her by speeding up, thereby destroying the moment, or do you live with the groove?
A great band always seems to be able to focus on the larger view, the common good—a commendable feat. You have to give a little ground, if you expect to have any friends. There's the exaggerated guitar sound you've grown to revere—that extra low end and slightly hyped treble you habitually dial in. You gotta let it go—you have got to share the spectrum. It's just as well. A bass part sounds much better when it's played on a bass. Percussion, too. It can be a major learning experience, giving up the idea of being the whole band.
So what do you play instead? There are many established types of parts for you to choose among, if you don't want to break new ground for now. There are "Philly" type licks, little "chink" tracks, "back beat" rhythm parts, high pedals, low pedals, locked arpeggio patterns, and myriads of others.
The structure of an arrangement is usually based on available instrumentation and their effective use. I realize that sounds obvious, but it isn't. Using your guns efficiently can be difficult. How, for example, do you justify the entrances and exits of your various instruments? It's usually easier to get in than to get out. Once you're committed, it can sound like something's missing when you leave, yet overstated or unnecessary if you stay in.
There are, of course, typical places for entrances and exits. It's nice to be aware of them, even if you don't use them. Minimal instrumentation at the top gives you somewhere to go dynamically and musically. The first chorus (assuming for this example that your song is of rather typical form—you know . . . verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental, chorus, chorus, end), is often a place for the introduction of more instrumentation or possibly background vocal help; the "turnaround" between verse and chorus is often a reiteration of the music played at the top of the song and, like the top, is a good place for a return to minimal instrumentation again, to give you somewhere to go. Then, typically, the second verse is often a place for the addition of a more rhythmic guitar (or other instrument), so it's possibly wise to save your rhythm ideas for this moment. I won't drag you through the rest—you get the idea. What I am suggesting though, is that you give your players the space and the proper timeliness to be really effective and to minimize on the free for all action, or at least to save it for your Ben Hur finish.
I was working with two other players for awhile, a couple years back, and I remember the moment, in the middle of rehearsal, when we became a trio. It happened to all three of us at once. Magic? Absolutely. There is indeed such a thing as chemistry—the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
Learning to make music with others is an exercise in trust, attention and vulnerability. It's an incredible experience. It is almost embarrassing to be that open with people; it's like looking into another soul. It has created some of the deepest friendships of my life. It takes practice and patience—a sort of being true to the possibility—a prepared waiting. And it's worth it.
Performing Songwriter - Volume 2, Issue 11 - March/April 1995
Photo: ©C. McArthur
More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns